Last Kerner mem­ber haunted, yet hope­ful

Op­ti­mistic race ideas can still be em­braced

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY RUSSELL CON­TR­ERAS

CORRALES, N.M. | Nearly 50 years af­ter the Kerner Com­mis­sion stud­ied the causes of deadly ri­ots in Amer­ica’s cities, its last sur­viv­ing mem­ber says he re­mains haunted that its rec­om­men­da­tions on U.S. race re­la­tions and poverty were never adopted.

But for­mer Sen. Fred Har­ris of Ok­la­homa also said he’s hope­ful those ideas will be em­braced one day, and he’s en­cour­aged by Black Lives Mat­ter and other so­cial move­ments.

In an in­ter­view with The As­so­ci­ated Press, Mr. Har­ris, 86, said he still feels strongly that poverty and struc­tural racism in­flame racial ten­sions, even as the United States be­comes more di­verse.

“To­day, there are more peo­ple in Amer­ica who are poor — both in num­bers and greater per­cent­age,” Mr. Har­ris told the AP from his home in Corrales, New Mex­ico. “And poor peo­ple to­day are poorer than they were then. It’s harder to get out of poverty.”

The na­tion’s poverty rate was 14.2 per­cent in 1967 com­pared to 14 per­cent last year, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­sus.

And de­spite five decades of civil rights and vot­ing rights ad­vance­ments, cities and schools “have re­seg­re­gated,” Mr. Har­ris said. He cited re­cent fed­eral data that showed the num­ber of poor schools with mainly Latino and black stu­dents more than dou­bled from 2001 to 2014.

The re­sult­ing ten­sions some­times play out in clashes with po­lice, as seen re­cently in St. Louis, Bal­ti­more and Char­lotte, North Carolina.

Only by get­ting the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion con­cerned about racial dis­par­ity, poor hous­ing and proper job train­ing will the United States fi­nally tackle the un­der­ly­ing causes of the ur­ban ri­ots of the 1960s and the po­lice-mi­nor­ity ten­sions of to­day, Mr. Har­ris said.

“We can help peo­ple to see that we didn’t solve th­ese problems,” he said. “No, they are still with us, and in some ways, poverty is worse.”

Of the Kerner Com­mis­sion’s mem­bers, who in­cluded for­mer Illi­nois Gov. Otto Kerner, New York Mayor John Lind­say and Mas­sachusetts Sen. Ed­ward W. Brooke, only Mr. Har­ris re­mains.

The late Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son cre­ated the 11-mem­ber com­mis­sion in 1967 as Detroit was en­gulfed in a rag­ing riot. Five days of vi­o­lence would leave 33 blacks and 10 whites dead, and more than 1,400 build­ings burned. More than 7,000 peo­ple were ar­rested.

Dur­ing the sum­mer, more than 150 cases of civil un­rest erupted across the United States.

With other com­mis­sion mem­bers, Mr. Har­ris toured riot-torn cities and in­ter­viewed black and Latino res­i­dents and white po­lice of­fi­cers. Mr. Har­ris and his col­leagues soon dis­cov­ered that as black res­i­dents from the South moved into ur­ban cen­ters, white res­i­dents moved out and so did high-pay­ing em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“Over and over, we were told, ‘We want jobs, baby,’” Mr. Har­ris said.

The panel con­cluded that the na­tion should spend bil­lions re­vi­tal­iz­ing strug­gling cities, im­prov­ing po­lice re­la­tions and end­ing hous­ing and job dis­crim­i­na­tion.

But amid the Viet­nam War and an­ti­war protest, John­son re­fused to meet with the com­mis­sion. John­son con­cluded the re­port would “ruin” him and that com­mis­sion mem­bers didn’t give his “Great So­ci­ety” pro­grams enough credit, Mr. Har­ris said.

“That was false,” Mr. Har­ris said, ar­gu­ing that the re­port gave John­son credit for tack­ling poverty and wasn’t aimed at hurt­ing him.

Nonethe­less, the re­port, re­leased March 1, 1968, be­came a best seller and a classic study on poverty and racial in­equal­ity in the U.S.

Eric Tang, an African and African di­as­pora stud­ies pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Texas, said that be­fore the Kerner Com­mis­sion re­port, no govern­ment doc­u­ment had ex­plic­itly named in­sti­tu­tional, sys­temic racism as an un­der­ly­ing cause of black un­rest in the U.S.

“Th­ese is­sues haven’t gone away, be­cause many of the key rec­om­men­da­tions weren’t im­ple­mented,” Mr. Tang said.

Af­ter Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon took of­fice, the fo­cus shifted to in­creased polic­ing in cities and con­fin­ing the poverty there, Mr. Tang said.

In re­cent years, high-pro­file po­lice shoot­ings of un­armed black and Latino men have sparked mul­ti­ple ur­ban racial con­flicts, protests and calls for po­lice re­forms.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

For­mer U.S. Sen. Fred Har­ris, the last sur­viv­ing mem­ber of the Kerner Com­mis­sion, says 50 years af­ter work­ing on a re­port to ex­am­ine the causes of the late 1960s race ri­ots he strongly feels that poverty and struc­tural racism still en­flames racial ten­sions.

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